Liverpool v Man United: Is the Premier League title on the line already?

Sunday's derby offers the champs the chance to overtake the leaders
Liverpool v Man United: Is the Premier League title on the line already?

Manchester United's Edinson Cavani is congratulated by a pleased Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after the Premier League match against Burnley at Turf Moor, Burnley. Can United keep Liverpool off the top of the table? Picture: Jon Super/PA Wire

THE old truism of; 'you don't win a cup in January, but you can lose one' comes to mind when looking at Sunday's important meeting of the old Lancashire derby of Liverpool versus Man United at Anfield.

United's hard-fought victory over Burnley in their game in hand clash on Tuesday night saw them assume top-of-the-table status for the first time in three years, which by United's high standards seems like an eternity.

Now the task ahead of them is whether they can build on that Turf Moor result and maybe deal a fatal blow on the champions' hope of retaining their crown.

Their advantage is that few if anyone could have predicted that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer charges would be in this position when United lost their opening game of the new season 3-1 to Crystal Palace. The poor start was compounded by the side's early exit from the Champions League. Now the manager is seeking to make a bold statement about his side's title credentials, just a few short weeks after he was at the centre of a campaign calling for his head.

As in politics, a week is a long time, and a few results in the right direction has changed Solskjaer's fortunes dramatically.

That's the good news for Ole. The more sober analysis will note that while United are indeed at the top of the table, they did so without setting the world on fire in doing so. Indeed, seven of United's 12 league victories this season, so far, were by just one-goal margins, most of them 1-0 wins against mediocre opponents. Still, they were victories and it doesn't matter at the end of the season how ugly they were when the points total is assessed.

BIG GAMES:

Of more concern to United should be their results when they came up against the traditional powerhouses of the top six sides. They lost 1-0 to a very average Arsenal side struggling with their own problems. They were lucky to get draws against Chelsea and Man City while their humiliating defeat of the season came at home thanks to a 6-1 defeat at the hands of Spurs back in October.

In recent form, the 2-0 defeat to City in the Carabao Cup semi-final again raises the question of United's mettle in make or break games against the top sides.

So this Sunday's league clash and next week's FA Cup encounter with Liverpool may well define the season and the overall rejuvenation of this Man United side.

Liverpool's Roberto Firmino after the Southampton game. Picture: Adam Davy/PA Wire 
Liverpool's Roberto Firmino after the Southampton game. Picture: Adam Davy/PA Wire 

It is a similar situation for champions Liverpool. Which is totally different to this time last season, before the coronavirus' arrival, Liverpool beat United 2-0 culminating in a length-of-the-field counterattack by Mo Salah to score the winning goal that, despite it only being January, pushed Liverpool into a 16-point lead in the table and seemed to confirm to the world that their Premier League title dream would be confirmed as the fans on the Kop sang in glee, "now you're going to believe us..."

However, after a fairly good start to this season, this January sees Liverpool lose their mojo suffering several bang average results against sides they were scoring for fun against last season, putting their title retention at serious risk.

Unlike United, Liverpool's stumbles have been against lower-placed sides and they tend to raise their performances against the top teams. 

Their humiliating result came at the hands of a 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa while their highlight was the professional performance in the win against Spurs at Anfield. And with the exception of the 7-0 win over Palace, their league form since has collapsed returning two points from a possible nine. It is clear this Liverpool side is not the same as the free-flowing dynamo of last season. But they tend to raise their performance, as will United, for the games against the old foe.

So there we have it, the good old days' old order restored and a United v Liverpool clash to decide who stays top of the table. It will also be interesting to see if it will have a telling impact on the title destination at the end of the season.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola celebrates with his players. Picture: Peter Powell/PA Wire
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola celebrates with his players. Picture: Peter Powell/PA Wire

Of course, waiting in the wings will be the very interested spectator of Man City, eagerly waiting to hit the afterburner on their own run at a top-of-the-table return.

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